Arts & Entertainment
23 min

Straddling the world

d'bi.young craves new spaces

Calling d’bi.young transient is a considerable understatement. The queer Jamaican-born Canadian artist has called more than a dozen countries home in the last decade. But jet-setting around the globe is about more than seeing the world and presenting her work. It’s part of her politics. At the core of all her writings, recordings and performances is a demand for social change. Constant movement allows her to actualize this on a global scale. The stripped-down living might seem daunting to some (she owns little more than can fit in a suitcase), but the fact that she’s a single mom with two kids makes the whole endeavour all the more remarkable.

“I get criticized sometimes for having my children on the road with me all the time,” she says. “But there’s more than one way to raise a family. I was raised by working-class women, and we didn’t have much materially. But there was a belief in the power of storytelling and a constant sense of knowing who you wanted to be in society and what role you wanted to play in making the world better.

“When parents don’t live out their own desires, they look to their children to fulfill them,” she adds. “I’m doing everything with my life I desire, so I’ll never push my children to be what I couldn’t.”

Currently dividing her time between South Africa and the UK, young makes a brief return to Toronto in November to present The Sankofa Trilogy, a series of solo shows charting the struggles of three generations of women.

The trilogy opens with the 2005 Dora Award–winning blood.claat, centring on 15-year-old Mudgu as she comes to understand the power of blood as a force of life, through menstruation, and a symbol of death, in the violent, impoverished suburb of Kingston, Jamaica, where she lives.

Next is benu, in which Mudgu’s daughter, Sekesu, now a 30-year-old immigrant and single mother in Toronto, clashes with the Canadian healthcare and social service systems while trying to raise her daughter.

The series closes with the new work, word! sound! powah!, about the birth of dub poetry in Jamaica, a form of performance prominent in young’s own work and pioneered by her mother, Anita Stewart.

Though she’s been produced at both Theatre Passe Muraille and Buddies, been part of the Soulpepper Theatre Company, and graced the Princess of Wales stage in da Kink in my Hair, Sankofa will be young’s first project with Tarragon Theatre. The move has raised a few eyebrows because young’s work stands in stark contrast to the fare usually on offer at the Annex cultural hub. Yet she says it was a natural fit.

Artistic director Richard Rose invited young to join the company’s play-development program two years ago, when the final part of the trilogy was born. He then offered her a chance to produce the piece as part of the season, but young had a condition: the theatre would have to produce all three works at the same time.

“It’s been a crazy complicated process, and I’ve never done anything this ambitious before,” she laughs. “But they’ve given me everything I’ve asked for and let me run things exactly how I wanted. I feel blessed to have met so many beautiful people through working there.”

The three shows will run in a lofty production bringing together more than 40 artists, including designers and musicians. Although the process began with a single monologue about menstruation, young always believed the work was destined for a larger scale.

“I knew I was writing a trilogy from the beginning, even though I didn’t know how it would be structured or what would be covered,” she says. “There was a process of connecting the dots. Once the last piece was finished and I saw what it was, I went back and made changes to the first two plays so they fit together in a timeline.”

Following the run in Toronto, young and the kids will be departing for a 15-month world tour, starting with stops in South and East Asia.

Demanding as it sounds, young doesn’t see herself slowing down anytime soon.

“I have moments when I crave stability, like after we’ve spent 24 hours on a plane,” she laughs. “But when I’ve been in a new place six months, I start to get itchy. I don’t want to say I get bored easily, because you can find excitement in everything, even the most everyday activities. But being in new spaces and talking to new people is the most exciting thing ever.”

Young spoke on video with Xtra contributor Jorge Vallejos: